What Works: Gender Equality by Design

How can an organization make real progress in diversity and inclusion efforts? Iris Bohnet, the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and the Director of the Women in Public Policy Program at HKS, visited Cabot Library to share strategies on how to begin this process in a meaningful way.

In her work as a behavioral economist, she aims to understand why people make decisions and choices, using those insights to help organizations on their path to making the workplace more equitable.

In order to make progress on diversity and inclusion, we need to debias our systems and then our mindsets.
Iris Bohnet, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy, HKS

Use data-driven decision-making

Using data-driven decision-making is a way to move towards inclusion in the workplace. By measuring who is hired, who gets promoted, who gets training, and who receives feedback, organizations can begin to tell the story of what’s really going on and understand next steps. After all, if you don’t measure it, it won’t get done. 

Then, you unpack the data. For example, a company in the U.K. found a gender gap in their promotion system. Digging deeper, they realized that a mobility gap was causing the gender imbalance. The company required candidates for promotion to have worked outside the U.K. for at least three years. Women are statistically less mobile because they're more likely to have family commitments or are often never asked to take a remote position. Women often require more complex arrangements to take a position abroad that involves the lives of other people: children, parents, or partners.

Once the company identified this problem, leadership put new procedures in place—such as making sure that everyone at the company is asked if they would like to work remotely, offering better partner packages to make it easier for people to relocate, and re-visiting the reasons behind the remote working requirement itself. 

Changing systems and cultures

While there are many tools and resources to help organizations change their systems, the biggest challenge lies in changing the culture. Informal cultures are specific to each company and there is less research on this topic.  “In informality lives bias,” said Bohnet.

Holding a day-long workshop that promotes awareness of overcoming unconscious bias is one way to bring people together to find solutions. Participants split into small working groups focused on topics such as hiring, promotions, and company culture. They return to the larger group with three interventions they would like to see happen. During a sharing session with whiteboards, the group ranks the top 3 priorities for each topic and places them into a matrix. What is high cost, and what is a high impact? Lastly, the groups plan a timeline. Who is accountable? What will they do next? Achievable, small steps are key to continuing the journey of making these efforts sustainable. 

Norm nudge

Knowing your own statistics can help you improve. For example, providing information on some of the best performing departments within an organization who promote men and women equally can help managers in other departments follow their lead. Organizations should have an inclusion diagnostic to know when bias is happening and how to stop it when it does.

Turn negatives into positives 

Raise the red flag: Decide on a checklist of desirable behaviors. At your next meeting, bring red flags to the conference table and raise them whenever a transgression occurs. This lowers the bar for raising the flag and decriminalizes behavior because these behaviors happen to all of us, such as not giving credit to our colleagues for their ideas, failing to acknowledge the contributions of others, and making mistakes in gender pronouns. A sense of humor is also key. If we can laugh at ourselves, we can learn and grow together.

Assign a devil’s advocate: To combat groupthink—where the group doesn’t come up with a better idea because they follow the alpha voice—the role of devil’s advocate in a meeting is to question assumptions and make sure that guidelines for inclusive behavior are observed.

Become a microsponsor 

It takes a village to promote change. By speaking up and supporting your colleagues in meetings, you can reinforce their ideas and give credit where it’s due. Meetings can often be the place where power dynamics and experiences of exclusion happen. People are overlooked and interrupted. For example, if Lakeisha voices an idea and it's ignored, speak up to support it, give her credit for the idea, or build on it. If Robert brings up the same idea a few minutes later, give credit to Lakeisha for the original idea and acknowledge that Robert is building on her idea. 

Blind hiring procedures

The Boston Symphony orchestra found that if musicians auditioned behind a curtain, more women were hired. “In many ways, it summarizes everything that a good intervention should do,” said Bohnet. “It makes it easier for people to do the right thing.”

By blinding CVs, we can fight bias and let the real person shine through. A team of people can evaluate each resume/CV separately by removing names, using a number, and assigning a rating to each.

A work test is also the best indicator of future performance. During an interview, ask each candidate the same questions in the same order. Unstructured, informal chats let bias creep in. Affinities will overshadow our judgment and one tends to “go with the gut” instead of with the facts. Blind hiring procedures and work tests are scientific ways of predicting future success, leading to an interview that is an opportunity for a fresh new start instead of a predetermined outcome.

“You need to understand what’s happening in your organizations and your teams first, then think about de-biasing mechanisms in the formal, systems world and the informal culture,” Bohnet said.

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  • Organizational Behavior